Westminster council considers tighter controls on legal costs CENTRAL--Union Mills * Westminster * Sandymount * Finksburg

August 16, 1993|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff Writer

Westminster's government spent $1,000 for a second round of legal research that produced no change in the city attorney's initial conclusion on Parr's Ridge homeowners' association's request for a tax break.

Mayor W. Benjamin Brown, who directed City Attorney John B. Walsh Jr. to perform the additional work, says he saw no need to seek council approval before incurring the expense.

The mayor's action prompted council members to consider tighter controls on legal expenses, but opinion on the panel is divided.

Meanwhile, the Parr's Ridge homeowners' association is studying Mr. Walsh's second opinion, which reiterated his view that the council doesn't have the legal authority to grant the residents a special property tax reduction.

Association President F. Edward Wright said last week that condo owners have not decided whether to take their case for the tax reduction to court. Cynthia K. Hitt, the association's lawyer, said she gave the board of directors some comments on Mr. Walsh's opinion, "which I am not free to discuss."

Mayor Brown initiated a meeting with condominium residents after the council denied Parr's Ridge's request for a tax break in December.

"I contacted the association after the public hearing in the fire hall," Mr. Brown said. "I interpreted from some of their facial reactions and questions that they were confused about the legal basis for the opinion."

Mr. Brown said he asked Mr. Walsh to accompany him so the attorney could answer legal questions. He said neither he nor Mr. Walsh knew that the association's attorney would attend the meeting. "I had the feeling their lawyer had gone over it with them," Mr. Brown said.

But he said the residents still had points to make. "I do think they needed to talk. I don't think they were talked out," he said.

The condo owners have argued that they pay taxes at the same rate as other property owners but do not receive trash collection, snow removal and street lighting from the city.

Westminster provides trash pickup only for single-family houses and apartment buildings with no more than three rental units.

City officials noted last fall that Parr's Ridge was developed on a private street. The city does not provide snow removal or lighting on private streets.

Ms. Hitt submitted some examples of court rulings on tax issues at the residents' meeting with Mr. Brown and Mr. Walsh. The mayor asked the city attorney to review them. Mr. Brown said he didn't clear the request with the council because it was a review rather than a new opinion. The attorney bills the city $100 an hour for any service, from attending a meeting to researching points of law. The council has budgeted $98,000 this year for legal services.

Council President Kenneth A. Yowan said he didn't object to the meeting, but felt Mayor Brown should have gotten council approval to have the attorney accompany him and prepare the second opinion.

"I don't think any more money should be spent on this without coming back to the council," Mr. Yowan said. "We've been through it two times and essentially gotten the same opinion."

Councilwoman Rebecca A. Orenstein proposed tighter controls on how legal expenses are approved. "The flowers I bought for Brenda [Millberry, who sang at the council's June 14 Flag Day observance], I had to go in and say, 'I need $9 for flowers,' " she said. "But I could take Mr. Walsh out and ask him to write anything." Councilman Stephen R. Chapin Sr. supported Ms. Orenstein's position.

Councilman Damian L. Halstad disagreed. "I don't see a need for tighter controls on the way legal expenses are incurred. I see this as a legitimate second look," he said.

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